Sunday night, before Malcolm Butler made his goalline interception and I spilled salsa on my Tedy Bruschi jersey jumping around like an insane person, before I repeatedly cursed God for allowing Kearse to catch that ball, before all of the second half madness, I was watching Missy Elliott on the Super Bowl halftime show. Missy was glorious.
There are only two possible reactions to that performance: "God, I miss Missy, I wish she was back" and "I don't know who that is, but I want to hear more of her music," and judging by Twitter, there were more than a couple people who were seeing Miss Misdemeanor for the first time.
I won't mock the youngsters who aren't familiar with Missy, a large part of the reason I'm writing this is how thoroughly her musical legacy has become submerged in the last ten years; that's how long it's been since she last dropped an album, 2005's The Cookbook. So yes, if you're 17 now, that means you were still rocking sweatpants the last time Missy was in the spotlight and I won't judge you for missing the Missy era. I'm simply trying to create a place where you can get caught up, and some of my fellow older folks can re-appreciate an artist who had largely fallen off the radar until that Super Bowl performance. There are no judgments here, this is a trust tree.
It's always easiest to start with numbers, so let's start with the numbers. To date, Melissa Arnette "Missy" Elliott has sold over 30 million albums, including six platinum albums and one double-platinum, Under Construction. Forget the inevitable "female" tag, those numbers make her one of the most popular and best-selling rappers of the late '90s and 2000s, period. Throw in five Grammy wins and 33 nominations (33!), plus her work as a producer and songwriter with other artists - she wrote nine songs on Aaliyah's classic One in a Million album - and yeah, Missy's resume is a kinda a big deal.
But while those numbers lend some legitimacy to her overall impact on hip-hop and larger pop culture, they really only tell a sliver of the story. Missy was an absolute creative hurricane, an artistic force the likes of which I don't know if we really even have today. In many ways, she made pop music, music that was fun and dominated radio and became a staple of wedding parties, but even with all her mainstream success, her hip-hop credentials remained impeccable. Even her number one songs were filled with Run DMC samples, Kangol hats, and breakdancers. You'd be hard-pressed to name another artist in hip-hop who pushed more old-school hip-hop influence into the chart stratosphere than Missy.
While I'm loathed to bring up Missy's gender - the "female" label that so often accompanies her is frankly a large part of why she remains so chronically underestimated - it's also impossible to understand and appreciate Elliott's influence completely devoid of gender. Take "The Rain," a breakthrough video that absolutely blew minds open when it dropped in 1997.
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Only Busta Rhymes was equally worthy of exhibiting Hype Williams hyper-visual video style. Outside of Mr. Rhymes, it's hard to imagine another rapper willingly rocking an inflatable trash bag in a video, and it's almost impossible to imagine any female artist doing it, even the supposedly "crazy" Nicki Minaj, but that was Missy's genius. She was willing to travel to uncharted territory, an especially risky proposition in a music industry obsessed with turning female artists into manufactured Barbie dolls. Missy was strong enough and talented enough to make her sexuality a part of her music but never all of her music. Other women tried flipping the script by objectifying men, but in doing so they still often ended up as objects. Missy, on the other hand, could insist on men with stamina while detaching her own head.
So why has Missy faded into the background so completely over the last decade? As opposed to some of her early-2000s peers like Nelly who continued releasing music to consistently dwindling results, Missy's exile from the spotlight has been largely self-imposed. In 2011 she revealed that she had been battling Graves disease for years, a chronic condition that often left her unable to even hold a pen, let alone record and tour. But even more than her health issues, she appears to be caught in the same creative space Andre 3000 has spoken about recently.
"Your brain needs time to refresh! Things happen in your life where you can then write something else instead of the same three topics. Like, how many times we gonna talk about the club? I gotta feel like what I'm giving the fans is 100 percent and that it's game-changing."
When you have the kind of legacy Missy does, you can't just drop an album full of hot songs. You have to do something totally original, something that will shift the direction of the culture, and that incredible burden only grows heavier with every passing year. Living up to the accumulated expectations of a decade without a new album is extraordinary pressure, and in that context artists like Dr. Dre, Missy and Andre have often decided that no new music is a better option than dropping less-than-classic music.
It's a philosophy of perfection that can be paralyzing, but in Missy's case, it was clear that it was the right decision. Seeing her emerge on that Super Bowl stage was a pure, unadulterated rush of adrenaline untainted by sub-par albums and lackluster mixtapes. It felt special, it felt like a moment, like Missy had been unfrozen from 2005 and brought back to life, and after only a few seconds of watching her, it became immediately clear just how big of a hole she'd left in hip-hop when she left.
Of course, I want new music from Missy, but like 3 Stacks, I'm not selfish enough to demand that new music comes merely because I want it. If Elliott never drops another album, she's already done more than her part to push hip-hop in a positive direction, and for that I'm thankful. At the very least, that Super Bowl performance sparked a renewed rush of interest in her music, and that's a good thing.
Regardless of what happens though, there will never be another Missy Elliott. She was, and is, an entirely singular talent, the type of talent that only comes along once in a generation. Hip-hop was lucky to have Missy Elliott. Hopefully, our luck hasn't run out.